Joshua 5:1-12

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When the bulletin was prepared last Wednesday, I intended to consider vv. 10-12 of chapter 5 separately; a sermon on baptism and a sermon on the Lord’s Supper in other words. But I subsequently decided to combine them. So retitle the sermon “The Sacraments: So What?”

Text Comment


As you know the chapter divisions were added much later, long after the Bible was written, and they’re not always well positioned. This is such a case. This first verse, reporting the reaction of the Canaanite kings to Israel’s crossing the Jordan on dry land really belongs in the previous chapter. The new subject begins with v. 2.

This fact is the more interesting because there is a Hebrew manuscript of the book of Joshua found at Qumran — thus much older, actually more than a thousand years older, than the manuscripts upon which the English translation you hold in your hand was based — that places the material we find at 8:30-35 here, before v. 2. That material records the ceremony of covenant renewal the instructions for which are found in Deut. 27:1-13. An altar was to be built, the law copied onto stones, burnt offerings and peace offerings were to be made, and so on. In Deuteronomy we read that this was to be done when Israel crossed the Jordan River into Canaan. In the established text of Joshua, that ceremony did not take place until after the defeat of Jericho and Ai; but in that text from Qumran, it took place immediately upon the crossing of the river. There is at least some possibility that the Qumran text preserves the original order, not least because it would make perfect sense for the circumcision of the people and their first Passover to follow the renewal of their covenant with Yahweh. Josephus, in his history of the Jews, also mentions the building of an altar immediately after the crossing. [Howard, 145-146] On the other hand, Moses commanded that the ceremony be held in the valley between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, a considerable distance to the north of Jericho.


Circumcision was practiced widely in the ancient near east but for different reasons: as a rite of initiation before marriage or as a passage to manhood at the time of puberty. Only in Israel was it given a theological significance as a ritual of initiation into the covenant Yahweh had made with his people. [Cf. de Vaux, Ancient Israel, 46-48] I haven’t the time to argue the point, but the New Testament makes very clear that Christian baptism is the new form of circumcision for the epoch of Gentile Christianity. Circumcision is defined by Paul in Romans 4 as the seal of the righteousness that is by faith — a perfect definition of baptism — and in Colossians 2 he says straight away that if a Gentile Christian had been baptized, he had effectively been circumcised. Both are rituals of covenant initiation and, with few exceptions, what is true of the one is true of the other.


Gibeath-haaraloth means “Hill of Foreskins”; yuk. No wonder a better name would be given to the place shortly!


The reason why the rite of circumcision had not been observed for some thirty-eight years in Israel was because the generation of Israel that had left Egypt at the exodus had forfeited the covenant by its unbelief and disobedience — a point made many times in the Bible. In Numbers 14:34, after Israel’s rebellion and refusal to enter the land, and after God had sentenced that generation to die in the wilderness and never enter the Promised Land, he told them, “You shall know my displeasure.” God had explicitly rejected that generation of his people and the formal demonstration of that rejection was the abeyance or suspension of circumcision, the rite of initiation into the covenant community. No one after that was able to enter the community of faith, at least in this formal way.


The word “all” is found six times in vv. 4-8, emphasizing that the unbelieving generation had been thoroughly eradicated and that the new generation was circumcised in its entirety. There is also a word play in the Hebrew that emphasizes the distinction between the two generations of Israelites.  In v. 6 we read that the first generation “perished;” in v. 8 that the circumcising of the next generation was “finished.” It is the same Hebrew verb in each case.

As we will learn throughout the Bible, God will be true to his promise: his people will inherit the Promised Land. But that never meant that each and every person who seemed at one time or another to belong to his people would so inherit. Those without faith forfeit the promise. A whole generation might be lost with very few exceptions, but God will raise up another to take their place in his covenant.

We don’t know who did all of this circumcising. There is nowhere in the Bible any indication that it was the work of priests or Levites as it is often the work of a rabbi in Judaism today. On the other hand, we don’t know that it wasn’t the work of priests or Levites. But to say that Joshua did it obviously means only that he saw to it that it was done.

This is more important than might appear at first glance. Circumcision even in Joshua’s day was superintended by the church. We are not told how, but somehow circumcision was prevented for the previous thirty-eight years in Israel. If circumcision were a family rite and fathers circumcised their sons as a matter of course, it is hard to know how the practice could have been effectively suspended throughout the nation. The practice was stopped in Israel and here it was begun again. That indicates some external control over the practice. And so in the New Testament. Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper are rituals of the church, superintended by the ministry, and unavailable even to Christians apart from and outside of the authority of the church. I have a dear relative — a firefighter — who told me with some pleasure that his pastor thought it would be touching if he baptized his own girls when they expressed a desire to be baptized. And he thought that was great, being allowed to baptize his own daughters. But that wasn’t great; it wasn’t right. Baptism is not a private act, it is not a family act; it is not performed at the initiative of and by the hand of individual believers. The Lord has placed the sacraments in his church and has ordered their performance by the church.


“The reproach of Egypt” is variously understood, but perhaps for a modern reader the easiest way to catch the gist is to paraphrase it this way: the Egyptians will no longer be able to tell their Hebrew jokes, jokes about a people who escaped Egypt only to wander aimlessly and then die in the desert. Gilgal sounds like the Hebrew verb “to roll.” [David, 48]


Israel was being scrupulously obedient. According to the instructions given by Moses in Exodus 12:6, the Passover lamb was to be killed at evening on the 14th day of that month. Passover had been celebrated early on in the wilderness (Num. 9:1-15), but whether it had continued to be celebrated after the rebellion at Kadesh Barnea thirty-eight years before we are not told. And we don’t think it was because no one was to celebrate the Passover who had not been circumcised.


This was a momentous occasion for Israel as it marked the end of forty years of wilderness living and eating; relying on manna rather than the produce of the land. The fact that the manna ceased to appear the day after they began eating the produce of the land accented the divine provision in each case. He gave them manna because the wilderness did not provide sufficient food; but once he had given them the land there was no further need for manna.

Now we have before us this morning in their admittedly Old Testament form, the two sacraments of the Christian church: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Anyone who has been a Christian for any length of time knows very well that these sacraments pose perpetual problems. Almost nothing has divided Christians from one another, indeed entire churches from one another, more often or more completely than baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The Reformation was, in a way, a battle over the purpose, the meaning, and the efficacy of the sacraments, and not just a battle between Catholics and Protestants. The Protestants had their own battles. At Marburg in 1529 the Lutheran and Reformed branches of the Reformation parted company, never to be rejoined, over a dispute concerning the Lord’s Supper. And the Anabaptists further complicated the early life of Protestantism by their denial that Christian children should be baptized and by some of them insisting that the sacrament was to be performed only by the total immersion of the body under water. As you know, even in our own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, we are still arguing about both baptism and the Lord’s Supper. What exactly does baptism do? How often should the Lord’s Supper be observed? How should it be observed? Should children participate in it and so on?

We know how to argue about the sacraments, whether or not we always argue intelligently or knowledgeably, and we can become quite heated in our arguments, but it remains a question to what extent any of this really matters to us. In the early years of the 20th century the great Princeton theologian Benjamin Warfield wrote in a letter to his Dutch counterpart, Herman Bavinck, that most American Presbyterians thought of infant baptism as more of the parents’ dedication of their child to God than as an actual entrance of a child into the membership of the church and the people of God. That is, Presbyterians had one theology of baptism on paper but another in the heart and mind. And the theology in their heart made baptism considerably less important.

A very influential summary of Reformed theology from the 19th century includes this statement: “…a man who is so strong in faith that he can be joyfully confident of his state of grace can do without the sacraments.” [H. Heppe, Die Dogmatik der evangelisch-reformierten Kirche, 472] Really? Do we actually believe that? I’d never heard that before; but the more I thought about that remark, the more I realized that it was how I had myself thought about the sacraments and how many Christians do today. These rituals may have a use, but nothing critical depends upon them. It is faith in our hearts, not water on our heads or bread and wine in our mouths that tells the tale.

The problem of the sacraments — the problem Christians have in understanding what they are, how they work, and why they are important ,if they are at all important — is made more complicated by the fact that the Bible seems to say seemingly contradictory things about them. In some places, as you know, we are warned not to think that circumcision or Passover, baptism or the Lord’s Supper will save us — this was a theme of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah and is picked up again by the Apostle Paul and the author of the letter to the Hebrews — but in other places we are taught that these same sacraments are essential to our salvation and our spiritual life.

In fact, we have both of those emphases cheek to jowl in the passage we just read. The generation that left Egypt at the exodus, that departed their land of slavery on eagles’ wings, had both circumcision and Passover. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 10, they were baptized, as it were, in the parted waters of the Red Sea. But neither baptism, nor circumcision, nor Passover saved them when they rebelled against God. They died in the wilderness and failed to reach the Promised Land because, the sacraments notwithstanding, they lacked true faith in God.

The next generation, those very young at the time of the exodus from Egypt or born on the way,  did not have circumcision, and, for all we know, they did not have Passover either. It seems likely they did not for in order to celebrate the Passover they would have had to violate the clear provision of the Law of Moses that circumcision had to precede participation in the Passover. Yet, without circumcision or Passover, they had, in the power of God, defeated two kings on the eastern side of the Jordan, taken possession of their lands, and now had crossed the Jordan on dry land! They are by all accounts a faithful and an obedient people, careful to do what Yahweh commanded.

So we have a circumcised people that die unsaved in the desert and an uncircumcised people who stride confidently into the Promised Land. What could more powerfully illustrate the unimportance of these sacraments than that?

However; not so fast. The nation had entered the Promised Land. The kings of Canaan were cowering in fear. The Israelite army was ready for battle and the enemy was in sight. Israel was poised to secure the Promised Land. Surely now is the time to strike. Generals know to strike while the iron is hot, not to give an enemy time to regroup or recover its morale. But instead of readying their attack on Jericho, Israel stopped to attend to these rituals of circumcision and Passover. You can easily imagine some Israelite soldier thinking or saying to his fellows, “You’ve got to be kidding. We’re going to be circumcised now?  Who was the major or the lieutenant colonel who thought this up?” It was a very unmilitary thing to do. Circumcision, not so much of a problem for a newborn, is more of an operation on an adult male. After the procedure, it took some days for a man to heal. As we read in v. 8 the army was disabled for some days. If you remember, two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, wiped out the male population of the town of Shechem by convincing them to be circumcised and, while they were indisposed and helpless, cut them down. The men of Jericho might have done the same thing!

Obviously to cripple the fighting strength of an army in the presence of the enemy would never be done unless it were absolutely necessary. Similarly, the celebration of Passover was likewise an interruption of the military schedule. What better proof could there be that the sacraments are vitally necessary to the life of God’s people than that Yahweh insisted on them at such a time as that.

What is perfectly obvious in the narrative is that Israel was not ready to take possession of the Promised Land. She couldn’t yet be an instrument of divine vengeance because she was not yet holy. Her spiritual preparation was incomplete and since what was about to be conducted throughout Canaan was holy war, Israel had to be a holy instrument; but she was not yet so. Her life was still defective in some obvious ways. She was sacramentally unready and that matters and matters a great deal. Whatever we may think, that is what God thinks.

What seems to be suggested is that Israel was not yet thoroughly and completely identified with the Lord and with his covenant. The divine mark had not been left upon her. We are inclined to think that her victories in battle east of the Jordan and her crossing of the river under such miraculous circumstances count for more than circumcision or a sacrificial meal such as Passover, but Yahweh apparently does not think as we are inclined to think.

There has been throughout the Christian ages, as you may know, an argument as to whether one is baptized because he is a Christian or is baptized to become a Christian. The Bible’s answer is a decided “Yes” to both questions. Our church has never thought that baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation. It has never taught that infants who die unbaptized are, for that reason, unsaved. On the other hand, it never contemplates a Christian remaining unbaptized. So much is this the case that it was a fixed law of life in the ancient epoch that no one could be considered a member of the covenant community or participate in its spiritual life without circumcision and certain texts in the New Testament say in an unembarrassed way that baptism and salvation go together hand in hand. Peter urged his penitent hearers on Pentecost to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins; Paul taught in Romans that in baptism we were actually crucified, we died, and we rose again with Jesus Christ; and Peter in his first letter artlessly speaks of baptism saving us. Was he aware of the controversy he would cause with that remark? These men were, of course, aware that people had been baptized and had participated in the Lord’s Supper who proved not to be true believers in Jesus or inheritors of the Promised Land. Yet they continued to speak of the sacraments in ways that emphasize their great power and effect.

Whatever else we may conclude from this narrative in Joshua 5, we should begin with this. Circumcision and the Passover were essential to Israel’s gaining possession of the Promised Land. That Yahweh ordered them to be observed before Israel took a further step into Canaan is proof of that. And so it has been ever since. A person puts his or her faith in Jesus Christ and very shortly thereafter he or she is baptized. This is sometimes forgotten, to be sure, but no one can read the Bible and think that one who aspires to belong to the people of God, to be numbered among the Christians, is free even to delay, much less to decline baptism. And, surely, no one can read the Bible and think that an authentic Christian life could be lived apart from active and regular participation in the Lord’s Supper.

And if we still doubt that, take note of the emphasis we find throughout this chapter on the divine initiative in both of these sacraments. It wasn’t Israel’s idea to stop and circumcise the army. It wasn’t Joshua’s. A point is made of the fact that this was done at Yahweh’s command. “At that time the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Make flint knives and circumcise the sons of Israel…” Yahweh wanted this done, he insisted on it being done even though he put his army by this means at risk by incapacitating its soldiers even in the face of the enemy.

The divine initiative is further emphasized in the long explanation given as to why Israel had not been circumcised before this. The Lord had sworn to their parents that they would not see the Promised Land. Part of their punishment was to have their children remain uncircumcised. But now, that previous generation having all died, the Lord required the sign of his covenant with Israel to be placed once again on the people. The Lord gave this sacrament to Abraham; he required that it be observed in every succeeding generation; he took it away from one generation on account of its unbelief, and then he gave it back to this new generation of his people. He told Abraham that circumcision was “my covenant in your flesh,” and this history confirms that. Circumcision or baptism is the Lord’s work and the Lord’s gift and the Lord’s covenant sign. It isn’t yours, it isn’t the church’s; it is Yahweh’s own. He gives it to whomever he will; he withholds it from others.

This fact about circumcision — that it is a divine act and a divine gift — is dramatically confirmed in v. 9, where we read Yahweh say, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” This circumcision of the people was the Lord’s doing. And the same, of course, could be said of the Passover: it was God’s gift to Israel.

And so it remains for baptism and the Lord’s Supper. American Christians may almost inevitably think of baptism as something they do, something they do for Christ, something they do to make public their loyalty to him, but, in fact, while there may be something of that in every baptism, by faith we know it is fundamentally something that Christ does for us and to us, not something we do for him. This is one of the very important implications of infant baptism, for it is entirely obvious that the infant isn’t doing anything; something is being done to him or her and for him or her by another.

In instituting baptism for the use of the church the Lord Christ said, “All authority is given unto me, therefore go make disciples of all nations and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And the Lord’s Supper is, in this respect, the same. “This is my body which is for you…” “This cup is the new covenant in my blood…” In other words, the Lord is supplying the food for us to eat in that meal.

I have often told you that the problem we have with the sacraments is precisely the problem we face at every other point in our Christian lives. We have to practice them by faith. We have to believe what we cannot see.

We are about to come to the Lord’s Table, as we do every Lord’s Day. This is a ritual with which we are now very familiar. We do it the same way Sunday by Sunday. We come to the table and receive first bread and then wine. We eat and we drink. Anyone can observe us doing so; indeed, we observe one another doing so. Ah, but what else is happening here? Well Paul says that in the Lord Supper believers participate in the body and the blood of Christ. [1 Cor. 10:16] That is, in a mysterious and invisible way, we commune with Christ himself in the Supper. Christ gives himself to us in the Supper and we receive him. Precisely how this happens no one can say. But we have always understood — however dimly sometimes — that in the Lord’s Supper there is not only a recollection, but a presence; indeed the presence of the Lord.

Now suppose, for a moment, that this one Lord’s Day morning we did not have to live by faith but were given for a few moments to live by sight. And suppose as we prepared ourselves to come forward to receive the bread and wine we were to see materializing behind the table one whom we immediately and intuitively recognized as the Lord Christ himself, materializing as he materialized that first Easter Sunday evening amidst his disciples in the Upper Room. The glory of God would be upon him in some way, true man that he continues to be; perhaps seraphim would be hovering over each shoulder. We would be captivated by his face, we would stare intently, trying to capture every feature, thrilled that, at last, we were seeing the very same man the apostles had seen; the man we had pictured in those many scenes described in the four Gospels; the very one whom we have believed for our salvation, whose invisible presence by the Holy Spirit we have counted on through the thick and thin of life. The very one to whom we have so often prayed; whose praises we have sung; whose name we have invoked times without number. There he now stands behind the table.

Mr. DeMass and I would not know what to do; the elders and deacons would stand at the back of the church, pretty certain that this Supper was to be different and that they would not be needed at the front. And suppose he then came down to the floor in front of the table and with a kind word and a motion of the hand he invited you forward. Your heart would be pounding, your palms sweating; a mixture of excitement, joy, love, and fear filling your soul.

And, then, finally, it is your turn and you are standing before the Lord Christ himself face to face and he is extending his hand and giving you the bread and as you take it he says, “This is my body.” Not this is the body of Christ as I must say, but “This is my body.” And then the cup, “This is my blood.” You want the moment to last forever but others are coming behind you and it is clear you must move on.

Would you ever take the Lord’s Supper the same way again? Would you ever forget that moment: what he looked like, what his voice sounded like as he told you “This is my body” and “This is my blood”; and the thrill you felt as you took each from him hand? You might still not be able fully to articulate what the bread and wine did for you and how the Lord’s Supper is a participation in his body and blood, but you would have no doubt that something very important and very precious had been given to you, that the Lord himself had given himself to you, and that scarcely a greater gift could be imagined or one more necessary to your life. And ever after you would never come to the Lord’s Table without thinking of him there, serving you the sacred food, that food which is himself. You would realize every Lord’s Supper that you are the Lord’s man or woman, the Lord’s boy or girl.You would realize afresh what an extraordinary privilege it is to be so, and what an extraordinary calling you have to love him with all you are and have and to love others in his name.

Do you remember the mystical experience that Thomas Aquinas had in the midst of a Lord’s Supper in the Priory Chapel in Naples? He heard Christ say to him, “You have written well of me, Thomas. What do you desire as reward for your labors?” Thomas, godly man that he was, had the wit and the wisdom to say in reply, “Lord, only yourself.”

That is how we are to think of the sacraments: means by which we receive more of the Lord and from the Lord and hold more firmly to him, by which our lives are more completely oriented to him. Only he can give us himself; but he promises that gift to all who come to him in faith. That is what the Lord wanted for Israel at Gilgal — more of himself — and that was what wise Israelites wanted from him. By both circumcision and Passover they became more completely his. And I hope that is what all of us want for ourselves and our children this morning; to be more completely the Lord’s!